Thoughts on Hiring Processes (aka Starting/Building a Team)

I’ve long been fascinated by team dynamics, on paid and volunteer teams.  This week, I read an article that made me think more about the hiring pipeline and methods I utilized at a previous position, and I decided to brush it up a bit, while I’m at it.  A couple of people have asked me about hiring and team building recently.  Seems like it’d be good to have a blog post to point them at.  😉

I was reading a NY Times article titled “Why Some Teams are Smarter Than Others.”  I take issue with the title, a little — what we think of as “smart” differs dramatically around the world, and is highly context-dependent.  The author of the article pulls the term from the referenced studies, though, basically.  They wrote, “On average, the groups that did well on one task did well on the others, too. In other words, some teams were simply smarter than others.”  Doing well on a task is not the same thing as having higher intelligence, in my opinion.

At any rate, this NYT article discussed two study findings that were of interest to me about group dynamics and what makes for a productive, effective team.  The first study referenced found that there were 3 characteristics of a more productive team: higher collaboration (teams not being dominated by one or two louder voices), higher scores on a test that essentially measures empathy, and higher number of women (a group of people who tend to score higher on aforementioned empathy scales).  The second study referenced in the NYT article followed up with analysis of online versus face-to-face “group effectiveness” (aka team cohesion), and found that “the most important ingredients for a smart team remained constant regardless of its mode of interaction: members who communicated a lot, participated equally and possessed good emotion-reading skills.”  The obvious question then becomes, how do you build a team that functions this way?


Well, I know what that reminds me of!  A few years ago, I sat down to chat with my friend Dan, and he gave me the three best employment requirements I’ve ever heard: CLEVER, COMPETENT, and KIND.  These are required characteristics of anyone I’d like to call a colleague, whether it’s a paid position or volunteer work.  I’ve used these requirements ever since that conversation, and I’m profoundly grateful to Dan for laying it all out for me so simply.

I want to work with people who are CLEVER in that they are smart, quick to understand tasks.  In an ideal world, I’d hire people for jobs that they have a talent for doing, so their natural affinity helps them get tasks done in an intelligent fashion for what’s required.  Clever also covers a baseline of recognizing logical conclusions, though.  If a project is due in a month, hopefully a coworker is clever enough to realize they’ll have better results if they work on it prior to the morning of the deadline.

I want to work with people who are COMPETENT in that they’re good at what they’re doing, have the skillset required or are developing it quickly, and get things done with efficiency and a high rate of success.  This doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes — no one avoids making mistakes unless they’re not learning anything new, and a competent coworker is also one who learns new skills and is exposed to new ideas.

Possibly of most importance to me, though, is that I want to work with people who are KIND.  It’s sometimes hard for us to admit, but emotions impact the work we do, and often dramatically so.  We spend a lot of time on the work we do — why would we think we can or should be dispassionate about it?  In any emotional situation, I want colleagues who are kind toward each other (and toward me!).  I want us to recognize that we’re all human, we all make mistakes, and we want to get through challenges together with as much cooperation as possible, which requires kindness.  Who wants to work with an unpleasant coworker?  Unpleasantness, and unkindness in particular, tends to throw a kink in any organization’s communications.  It causes a stumbling block.  Felps et al published a paper related to this in 2006 that you can download: HOW, WHEN, AND WHY BAD APPLES SPOIL THE BARREL: NEGATIVE GROUP MEMBERS AND DYSFUNCTIONAL GROUPS.  It’s a fascinating read.  Ira Glass also interviewed Will Felps on This American Life, if you find that format more appealing.

So that’s why my baseline requirements for colleagues on any project is that they be clever, competent, and kind.  Since I believe in laying the groundwork well before building upon it, that’s where I’d start when orienting anyone on how to build a competent team.


Here’s a diagram depicting my ideal hiring process, in baseline form:

I created this cheat sheet for myself, but you’re welcome to utilize it.


In case that’s too small to read, you can download a copy here: Hiring Process.

There are definitely some notes that go along with this, though, because it’s basically a rough sketch of how I go about hiring when I’m in charge of the hiring plan.  Nothing that simple should stand on its own.  😉

First thing to note is that the job description is sometimes the first opportunity you have to say something about your organization.  Make sure it’s something good!  Know why you’re looking for a new hire, and what problems you want the new hire to address.  Internally, know why you’re replacing someone if you’re replacing someone, or why you think a new position is warranted.  Externally, make sure the way you talk about your organization is consistent with the kind of organization you want to be.  You don’t have to include all of the details on this line in your job description, but if you don’t have the details outlined before you’re hiring, you will run into difficulty.

Of particular note is how you word the job post, and that it’s best not to have extra requirements in a job post beyond what the job actually requires.  It will turn off qualified applicants if you artificially heighten the requirements, but in particular, it’ll potentially turn off candidates who aren’t white cisgendered straight able men.  Why would I say that?  There’s the infamous Hewlett-Packard study of male and female applicants for promotions, where men would apply if confident of 60% of the job requirements, and women would hold back from applying even if 100% qualified based on the requirements.  There are many analyses on this “confidence gap,” of which I liked The Atlantic’s viewpoint, particularly as they made some suggestions for how to address it.  Even will advise you not to turn off women and other traditionally disadvantaged candidates with your job post, though.  Research also indicates that male-gendered language in job posts evokes a higher percentage of male applicants, whereas gender-inclusive language is not a barrier to candidates of any gender identity (Gaucher et al, 2011).  Please, please chew on that before writing your job post.  Want to try to address intersectional challenges in hiring a more diverse applicant pool (and honestly, why wouldn’t you)?  I recommend reading this new report on double jeopardy — women of color in STEM fields, for starters.

Any group of people can and should look at their surrounding communities and networks when looking for additional members.  However, using only that candidate pool will cause you to trend more and more toward a homogeneous team/company/etc., which is the opposite of what you want.  I know you may be thinking, “but we want people who fit our company culture!  people more like us!”  Most companies and teams want the ability to include a wide variety of viewpoints and troubleshoot a diverse set of problems at once, though.  That’s something that requires actually having a wide variety of viewpoints.  You can certainly recruit from within your surrounding community, and you may get some good candidates there, but if you’re only recruiting from within your network, you’re not going to do as well as you might otherwise be able to do.  I strongly, strongly encourage you to cast a wide net at the start of your search, and at minimum post about the job in as many places as you can think of.  Later layers of candidate evaluation will help you narrow down your choices.  The beginning of candidate search is all about having as many people to talk to as possible, in my opinion.

Please note that in any hiring process (even for volunteer positions), you have an incredible amount of first impression bias that you need to overcome in order to evaluate whether the candidate would be a good fit for your team.  I try to make hiring more efficient (time-wise) by tasking one or two people with the initial evaluation of candidates, so others only get involved once the candidate pool includes fewer people to evaluate.  That does mean you need to be extra conscious of the initial biases of those who are doing the first rounds of triage, however, and try to address them.  I once had a hiring manager reject a candidate because he came to the interview dressed in “business casual” attire, and the hiring manager felt that was too casual for the seriousness of the position.  Nothing I said could shake this person’s first impression, which I felt was in error, that the candidate didn’t take the interview seriously enough.  Let this be a warning to you — try to get to know the candidate well enough that you get past your initial first impressions, because first impressions will most often be based on class, gender, race, and other biases, conscious or not.  I agree with the statistic I’ve heard but can’t find a source for right now: most of the errors in hiring are made in the first 30 minutes of an interview, because someone gets an erroneous first impression and then doesn’t take the time to see past it.  How can you deal with your own first impression biases?  Here’s a Huffington Post article I liked on that topic, with some additional links within.  Mostly, though, I advocate taking one’s time with each candidate once you know they match key criteria of your job.

(Edited to add this paragraph.) In case it wasn’t clear above, I think it’s important that there be several perspectives involved when hiring for any position.  If your company or volunteer team is small, everyone would ideally have a role in figuring out who gets added to the team.  It’s essential that you have someone triage candidates and be the first point of contact for candidates, to keep things organized and efficient.  If the successful candidate will interface with several people in your organization on a regular basis, however, those people are stakeholders in the decision of who is a successful candidate.  I think it’s important that said stakeholders be involved in the process, in order to make sure the outcome will work.  If your organization has many different personalities in it (which hopefully it does), you won’t all click perfectly with every candidate, but hopefully you can make meaningful decisions as a team, nonetheless.  (And if you can’t, that’s probably a post unto itself, in terms of organizational health challenges.)  If your team is larger, I suggest having at least representation of key groups involved in interviewing — some direct reports to the position, some of the management/leadership team, and someone from HR (who can represent the team as a whole, in some ways).

I will highlight two additional things I think are important when hiring:

Make sure all candidates go through the same steps, if possible.

Look at the screening process and interview steps as conversations, not checklists.


When you’re hiring, you’re trying to be as efficient as possible in order to process as many candidates as possible and get to the point of hiring someone as quickly as possible.  I totally understand that.  However, you’re also making a decision that can impact the rest of the company, and may impact the future of the entire organization.  Whether your company is small or large, every person added is a bit of paint dropped into a glass of water, changing the results.  Any drop of paint can dramatically impact the resultant color of the water (or company).  Particularly in a small glass of water, each drop of paint has a large potential impact.

It’s also costly (in time and money) when someone doesn’t work out in an organization, and it’s a huge blow to morale when anyone is fired or leaves under poor circumstances.  This is particularly true with smaller organizations, but it’s pretty universally true in larger organizations, as well.  Don’t waste your time and the company’s morale later on by rushing into hiring a person who won’t work out.  Take the time up front to get to know candidates better and make very informed decisions.

Part of making said informed decisions is having all candidates go through the same steps once in the hiring pipeline, even if they spring from different sources.  I’ve put candidates who were friends of the company’s founders through an hour of screening before passing them on to the next level of interviewing.  In many ways, that time was even more important to spend, in order to make sure we were potentially hiring someone who was genuinely a good fit for the job and the company.  It’s also true for volunteer organizations — if you’re hiring a friend for a position, it’s good to have data to back that up as a good decision, even if the position is unpaid.  Every person added to an organization costs time and effort, and best practice involves making sure each decision is a good one.  One way to ensure good decisions is to make sure you put everyone through the same steps, as much as possible, while determining their candidacy for the position.


Somewhere between the beginning of a phone screen and the end of the team interviewing the candidate, you need to have some real conversation with applicants to your company/organization.  This means asking open-ended questions for which there aren’t really “wrong” answers (unless the candidate doesn’t have an answer).  I think it’s also obviously good to ask each candidate things like “Are you legal to work in this country?” and “What’s your timeframe for starting a new position?”  Those aren’t conversation starters, though.  Those have discrete answers, and usually not a lot of followup discussion.

(There was the time that a candidate answered “Are you legal to work in the US?” with “I was born in NJ and have never been jailed, either, if that’s what comes next on your checklist.”  That ended up being a discussion about the candidate’s assumptions and attitude toward HR, though, and was an outlier in my experience with asking those questions!)

Aside from the infamous “Would you eat a kitten to get this job?” question … I try to make sure that most of the following questions get asked during the course of a candidacy with my organization, when I’m running the hiring process:

  • Can you describe for me your favorite and least favorite parts of your last job?
  • What were your most common tasks performed during that job (or during your favorite job in the past)?
  • What are your side projects and interests?
  • Tell me about a large project you recently completed.  How did it go?
  • Tell me an important lesson you recently learned…
  • How about a time you made a mistake?  (Not in general terms — specifics on the mistake, what happened, and why.  Not ever making mistakes is a wrong answer.)
  • How do you handle conflict?  (Again, specifics needed.  Generalization leads to idealization.)
  • What are you passionate about?
  • What’s your superpower?  (I believe everyone has one.)
  • How do you go about learning new things?  (Not learning new things is a wrong answer.)
  • How do you handle underspecified tasks?
  • How does a team you’re currently on make decisions?  What would you do differently if you could?
  • What are the 3 biggest upcoming challenges you see yourself facing?

I’m not sure any one of these questions is required, other than talking about a mistake made by the candidate in the past, but they’re useful conversation starters.  Part of the point is to have a conversation in which you and the candidate get comfortable talking with one another about challenging topics.  If you’re HR or will be the manager of a successful candidate, establishing how you can talk about difficult things is an essential thing to figure out.  If you’re going to be a colleague, this is also really important.

I used to say that I required candidates to show me something real about themselves when interviewing with me.  I think it’s actually true; people who weren’t willing to open up, however long it took to do so, didn’t get my approval to move forward with their candidacy.  If you’re reading this post because you’re in the middle of interviewing (on either side of the table), I hope you take these ideas to heart.  If you’re in the middle of interviewing with me, I hope this post is helpful, and I wish us both luck!  😉


1 Comment

Filed under Organizational Health, Personal, Professional Life

One response to “Thoughts on Hiring Processes (aka Starting/Building a Team)

  1. Pingback: Links: 01/30/15 — Pretty Terrible

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